A red teamer is a cybersecurity professional that works to help companies improve IT security frameworks by attacking and undermining those same frameworks, often without notice.

The term “red teaming” is often used interchangeably with penetration testing. While the terms are similar, however, there are key distinctions. First and foremost is the lack of notice from red teams. Pen testing may be scheduled in advance to assess the ability of specific security measures to handle a simulated attack; red team exercises are carried out with no warning. This, in turn, forces company IT teams to respond as if red team efforts were a real attack.

The history of red teams

Red teams began with the military to evaluate the efficacy of strategies against enemies without engaging in actual combat.

By creating a red team tasked with attacking the so-called blue team using whatever tactics they deemed most effective, military organizations were able to pinpoint problems before they reached the battlefield, in turn helping to reduce the risk of personnel and material loss.

Over time, the term red team came to refer to a business using internal resources to assess current defensive readiness.

How in-demand is this role, and why?

Much like other cybersecurity jobs, red teamers are in-demand. Consider data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which notes that information security analyst roles — which include red team members — are in high demand, growing at a rate of 35% over the next 10 years. A quick search of job sites such as Indeed or ZipRecruiter reveals hundreds of open red team positions nationwide.

The continued popularity of this role should come as no surprise, given the evolving nature of cybersecurity threats. From the growth of Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) marketplaces to the ongoing success of attacker standbys such as phishing, security is never a “solved” problem for organizations.

Red teamers provide a way for companies to test their defenses in (nearly) real-world conditions. By allowing red teams to conduct attacks without warning, enterprises can see how their existing security practices work in response to emerging threats.

For example, red teams may attempt social engineering techniques to gain user credentials and access network services undetected. If successful, these mock attacks allow companies to address security weak points before attackers can exploit them. These red team efforts also help highlight areas of confirmation bias, where collective belief in the efficacy of a security system leads to incorrect assumptions about its ability to defend against actual threats.

Learn More on X-Force Red  

What qualifications do red teamers need?

There’s a growing need for red teamers, and many companies choose to upskill existing staff to bridge the security gap. As a result, there are no standardized certification paths for red teamers.

Instead, several popular security qualifications can help prospective red team members better understand attackers and create effective compromise strategies. These include:

CompTIA Security+

This entry-level certification is a great introduction to common security practices and protocols. It also helps set the stage for more advanced qualifications.

CompTIA PenTest+

This qualification focuses on the practice of penetration testing. It assesses the ability of IT professionals to plan and scope penetration testing efforts, understand any related legal or compliance concerns and create written reports based on their findings.

Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)

CEH provides professionals with the best practices necessary to carry out simulated attacks in such a way that they appear real but don’t fundamentally damage corporate systems.

Certified Cloud Penetration Tester (CCPT)

With the cloud now a critical part of business operations, CCPT is a sought-after designation to help companies build red teams capable of testing security measures across both local and off-site IT environments.

Certified Red Teams Operations Professional (CRTOP)

CRTOP certification holders are often red team leaders. This advanced qualification provides the knowledge and skills necessary to monitor and manage red team progress and keep defenders on their toes.

What are the primary responsibilities of this role?

Red team members aim to develop and deploy attacks that appear real and force security teams to respond ASAP.

In practice, this means finding and assessing security weak points, choosing appropriate attack vectors and carrying out a controlled attack that attempts to evade detection or capture. For example, red teams might start with a phishing campaign to obtain employee credentials. Then, they may leverage these credentials to gain system access and move laterally across network services until they can access sensitive data.

Once there, red teams may encrypt this information and demand a ransom. Once they’ve reached this end goal, the simulated attack ends and they return the data to company control. Teams then write up reports about how the attack was carried out, where they were able to compromise current defenses and what steps should be taken to improve overall protection.

Who is in charge of red teams?

In most cases, red teams report directly to the CISO. They may be given direction from the CISO on creating attacks or testing specific parts of corporate security frameworks. However, red teams also enjoy a significant level of autonomy when it comes to designing and carrying out attacks.

It makes sense. If the CISO knew what was coming, they might unintentionally share information with incident response teams that could reduce the efficacy of red team efforts. Ideally, a red team attack should look exactly like its real-world counterpart and prompt the same response from security teams. The only difference is the end game. Instead of encrypting and ransoming data for profit, red teams return control of systems to security professionals and prepare a report on what worked, what didn’t and what needs to improve.

Considering a cybersecurity career switch? Red teamers are on the rise as enterprises look to shore up defenses against evolving and unexpected attacks.

More from Incident Response

What cybersecurity pros can learn from first responders

4 min read - Though they may initially seem very different, there are some compelling similarities between cybersecurity professionals and traditional first responders like police and EMTs. After all, in a world where a cyberattack on critical infrastructure could cause untold damage and harm, cyber responders must be ready for anything. But are they actually prepared? Compared to the readiness of traditional first responders, how do cybersecurity professionals in incident response stand up? Let’s dig deeper into whether the same sense of urgency exists…

X-Force uncovers global NetScaler Gateway credential harvesting campaign

6 min read - This post was made possible through the contributions of Bastien Lardy, Sebastiano Marinaccio and Ruben Castillo. In September of 2023, X-Force uncovered a campaign where attackers were exploiting the vulnerability identified in CVE-2023-3519 to attack unpatched NetScaler Gateways to insert a malicious script into the HTML content of the authentication web page to capture user credentials. The campaign is another example of increased interest from cyber criminals in credentials. The 2023 X-Force cloud threat report found that 67% of cloud-related…

Tequila OS 2.0: The first forensic Linux distribution in Latin America

3 min read - Incident response teams are stretched thin, and the threats are only intensifying. But new tools are helping bridge the gap for cybersecurity pros in Latin America. IBM Security X-Force Threat Intelligence Index 2023 found that 12% of the security incidents X-force responded to were in Latin America. In comparison, 31% were in the Asia-Pacific, followed by Europe with 28%, North America with 25% and the Middle East with 4%. In the Latin American region, Brazil had 67% of incidents that…

Alert fatigue: A 911 cyber call center that never sleeps

4 min read - Imagine running a 911 call center where the switchboard is constantly lit up with incoming calls. The initial question, “What’s your emergency, please?” aims to funnel the event to the right responder for triage and assessment. Over the course of your shift, requests could range from soft-spoken “I’m having a heart attack” pleas to “Where’s my pizza?” freak-outs eating up important resources. Now add into the mix a volume of calls that burnout kicks in and important threats are missed.…

Topic updates

Get email updates and stay ahead of the latest threats to the security landscape, thought leadership and research.
Subscribe today